Tips On Using Flashguns

Mark Elliott of Better Photos shares his advice on using flashguns.

| Portraits and People
Words and images by Mark Elliott -

At first, using a flashgun is a little intimidating. You’ve got to grips with your camera settings and then you buy a flashgun. Suddenly, you are faced with a whole new set of confusing terms and techniques. Gulp!

Where do you start and what should you look for when buying your first flashgun? What settings should you use and why, and how do you create beautifully lit portraits? This article, which is the first of a series of three, is a gentle introduction into the world of flashguns/speedlights.

First, we need to review some basic lighting principles, which will help us choose the right flashgun and get the best results when using it for portrait photography.

Samsung users should take a look at the GN42 External Flash which is compatible with the EX1, NX5, NX10 and NX100.

Tips On Using Flashguns: Devonne by Mark Elliott
Photo by Mark Elliott.

Portraits: Light and Shadow

Highlights and Shadows

Highlights and shadows reveal dimension. They sculpt the face and help make a two dimensional photograph look three dimensional. When properly positioned, highlights and shadows make portraits look more interesting and attractive.

Hard Light

Hard light makes deep, hard-edged shadows and bright highlights, which often makes portraits look unflattering. Hard light is created when the light source is small in relation to the subject. Why? Because hard light hits the subject from one angle, making deep, hard edged shadows and harsh highlights.

Soft Light

Soft light creates softer, more pleasing shadows and gentler highlights, ideal for portrait photography. Soft light is created when the light source is large in relation to the subject. Why? Because soft light hits the subject from multiple angles, which smooths out the shadows and highlights.

So what’s this got to do with using flashguns? Well, it helps explain some of the problems we encounter when using flashguns and points the way to creating more flattering portraits.

Frying Pan Lighting

Mounting your flashgun on your camera’s hotshoe and firing direct flash at your subject is the photographic equivalent of cartoon Road Runner hitting Wile E. Coyote full in the face with a frying pan. It’s not pretty, and the photograph is likely to fail for several reasons.

In relation to your subject, your flashgun is a small light source and so the light it produces is hard. This hits your subject and most of the shadows, which would have given the photograph dimension, fall directly behind your subject. Any shadows that do fall on your subject’s face will be deep and hard and highlights are likely to be bright and unattractive.

Flash fired from a position on the same axis as your lens can also result in red eye, making your subject look demonic. Not good. Using your flashgun in this way often gives the worst results, except when you want to get revenge on your Mother-in-Law.


Fortunately, there are ways to overcome these issues and create beautifully lit portraits using your flashgun. So what are they?
  • Make the light from your flashgun hit your subject’s face at a more interesting angle; this will create more interesting shadows, sculpting the face.
  • Soften the light to make a more flattering portrait.
You can achieve these when using your flashgun mounted on your camera by changing your technique. You’ll get even better results by taking your flashgun out of your camera’s hotshoe mount and positioning it elsewhere.

In Part 2, we discuss techniques for creating flattering portraits when using your flashgun both ‘on camera’ and ‘off camera’. We’ll also talk about light modifiers, which you can use to further improve the quality of your light. There are no more excuses for ‘frying pan lighting’.

Mark Elliott is a Cumbria based portrait and commercial photographer. He also runs Better Photos Photography Training.

Tips On Using Flashguns:

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